Who Should Get Paid for Live Storytelling Events?
August 29, 2016 11:32 AM   Subscribe

It’s not that “exposure” doesn’t exist. It does, sort of, but it’s more along the lines of “networking.”

Performers get exposed to other performers, friendships form out of common likes and dislikes. Later, when these people are in positions of power, they’ll call the numbers they have, the same relationships that drive any industry. When those people are in the positions to make decisions, they’ll do the same thing, the web will expand, the cycle will continue. So, the only true exposure worth touting is one that cultivates relationships with other performers.
posted by Kitteh (66 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's really hard, because I've been in the small (nonprofessional) theater scene in one way or another for 25 years. The show I produce every year pays our playwrights, which is more than almost every festival around the state, or even in New England. However, everything else is volunteer. Actors in community theater don't get paid, nor do crew (some community theaters pay directors and stage managers, but it's an honorarium, and breaks down to about 10 cents per hour for the amount of work you put in). Musicians always do.

So what's the line of delineation? I find it hard to know, because we literally couldn't keep the theater open if we paid anyone at all (as a producer, I put in about $2500 of my own money into an institution that I just want to keep afloat, even though it's not "my" theater, but an 80-year-old club that puts on shows). We pay royalties for professional plays, and we pay music rights so we can play pre-show music, so some artists are being financially supported. And I won on paying playwrights, which is a big hurdle! But still, it's such a terrible financial world for performers, and finding ways of making performing arts pay for people who aren't going to sell out big venues for high ticket prices is incredibly hard to do.

I'll be interested to see what others say on this post.
posted by xingcat at 11:47 AM on August 29, 2016 [7 favorites]


The lengths that people will go to to defend not paying performers is astonishing. And then, between talking about “exposure” (which is 99% useless) and giving drink tickets and gift bags makes it even worse. If you’re charging $20 for a ticket to an event at a venue that will hold 200 people, charge $21 and give the performer $200. This should not be difficult.

I’m a musician, and while I don’t count on gigs for any kind of actual income, it sure would be nice if the performance were actually valued. A few years ago, I played in a band that opened for a band hat was one of the top-selling bands of the early 70s. Although it it was a free concert, attended by 4000 people, that band got paid well. The police doing security were paid. The people running and working at the concession stands were certainly paid. The four members of my band each got free bottles of water (given to us by someone at a concession stand who was paid to be there). We knew this going in, and did the gig because it would be fun. But it’s completely ridiculous, and there’s no logical excuse for it.

If the person(s) that people are going to see isn't being paid, while the people that the audience does not see (or care about) are being paid, there's something wrong.
posted by jonathanhughes at 12:11 PM on August 29, 2016 [7 favorites]


We knew this going in, and did the gig because it would be fun. But it’s completely ridiculous, and there’s no logical excuse for it.
You found your answer right there.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 12:15 PM on August 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


Sala, who’s a friend of mine, walks me through the money. Let’s say the venue has 100 seats, after comps for industry and friends of performers, the paying customer total goes down to 80 or so. Money coming in from an average show is close to $1,000. And where does that money go? The venue is the biggest chunk, which costs $500 to rent. Taboo Tales also utilizes the service of a videographer, a photographer, and a tech person, each costing around $100 a piece. Their programs cost $50, another $50 goes to prizes they give to audience members.
I understand (better now, even) the complexities of events like this but jesus christ it's hard to read that without thinking "well it sounds like you figured out how to pay the other people involved."
posted by griphus at 12:17 PM on August 29, 2016 [34 favorites]


I'm an active member of the NYC storytelling community, and it's a reeeeally grey area. I co-produce a show, and we have to charge a fee because our show is with a venue that has upkeep costs. I know the owner, and so I know how razor-thin her margins are, so I understand. My co-producer and I get a percentage of the door after a threshold, and we try to pay our performers with whatever we get. But because it's such a hit or miss scene, that's not always possible. We also cover the drinks tab for our performers, so even if we can't pay them, their drinks are covered. But that comes directly out of our pockets if we don't get a big enough audience. And sometimes, in order to GET that audience, we have to hire a publicist, in which case what we end up with from the door goes first to cover what the publicist cost. It's a really tough balancing act for all involved. When I perform on other people's shows, I'm always delighted when I get even 5 bucks, but I also never go in expecting it. But I also agree that we're part of the reason the bar is selling drinks, and I understand why performers would be frustrated to not see some sort of compensation. I think part of the problem is that the venues run a wide range but the performers are mostly the same. It's not like the people performing in the corner of a coffee shop or book store are necessarily less of a draw than those on a show at a place like Union Hall or the PIT. And one of those just can't afford to pay the performers, realistically. While the other can. But since it;s the same pool of performers, I think a lot of us become used to just not getting paid period.
posted by UltraMorgnus at 12:19 PM on August 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


The four members of my band each got free bottles of water (given to us by someone at a concession stand who was paid to be there). We knew this going in, and did the gig because it would be fun. But it’s completely ridiculous, and there’s no logical excuse for it.

Supply and Demand. If your band hadn't thought the gig would be fun, I bet that another band would have. And that's the problem for sub "top-selling" performers who are trying to make a living as performers -- to a certain degree, they are fungible, and lots of people are willing to work for free. And I don't actually feel like there is anything wrong with that

The trick happens when a performer is part of the draw of the event (so, in theory the event would be less successful without them) is still working for free. Which is why the "you can die of exposure" and other awareness campaigns are useful: performers should be valuing themselves more highly, and therefore forcing the event producers who need them to do the same.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:20 PM on August 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


We knew this going in, and did the gig because it would be fun.

That's the core issue. When performers do a gig because it is fun, and there is a large pool of talent that also things the gig will be fun and will likewise do it for little to no money, that performance is of little to no financial value. I presume your band didn't draw those 4000 people who bought concessions. Likewise your band didn't organize the event or keep rowdy people from causing trouble. Regardless of how good your band was, you were an incidental and completely replaceable element of the show, and if you can't derive value of your own from a performance in front of 4000 people, that's on you.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:21 PM on August 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


"You found your answer right there."

Absolutely true. I know that ultimately we're part of the problem. If only there were some kind of organization that people could join that would UNITE them and help keep this kind of thing from continuing.
posted by jonathanhughes at 12:22 PM on August 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


As a member of NYC's storytelling and standup scene, I have some *very* strong feelings about this. For example, I've never seen anyone buy tickets to a show because they heard the *videographer* was going to be really great.

However, what's important to remember is that in show business we're all great friends who love and respect each other equally, and gosh, if we're not where we want to be we just need to work HARDER and ultimately the rising tide will lift every boat.

Anyone who suggests otherwise is just a bitter complainer who isn't working hard enough and will lose the support of people in more powerful positions no matter how right he is.

/sarcasm
posted by chinese_fashion at 12:28 PM on August 29, 2016 [11 favorites]


"Regardless of how good your band was, you were an incidental and completely replaceable element of the show, and if you can't derive value of your own from a performance in front of 4000 people, that's on you."

Again, totally true. But surely there a value in having SOME opening band, otherwise they would't have had one. The opening band(s) creates the atmosphere that allows those concession stands to sell food and drink for four hours instead of two. And, quite honestly, the headlining band at these events is also (quite often) mainly incidental. People will show up regardless, and while a more well-known act will probably bring in more people, so will a sunny day.

I don't want to derail the conversation into talking about bands, as I think the issues with spoken word world might be different in some areas, and that's what the post is about. But regardless of who is performing, it would be wonderful if promoters/whoever is in charge could move beyond the mindset that the performer should be the last person to get paid and figure out how to pay them, even if it means charging more.
posted by jonathanhughes at 12:29 PM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Let’s say the venue has 100 seats, after comps for industry and friends of performers, the paying customer total goes down to 80 or so.

Is it a normal thing for comps to eat up 20% of the house per show?
posted by Iridic at 12:47 PM on August 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


I go to TempFest almost every year. I had just assumed that everyone involved was being paid. I had no idea this was even a thing.
posted by zinon at 12:48 PM on August 29, 2016


The cost of live entertainment has outpaced the value of live entertainment to people. As a small time gigging musician, its pretty awful, but it only makes up a small slice of my income. I know some people who gig to pay their bills, and they haven't seen a raise in their average gig payout in a decade. I don't really blame consumers, either. There's a huge race to the bottom by venues to offer the cheapest option to get people in the door for drinks. The venues (at least here in Austin) aren't making a killing, but they're also taking advantage of a huge over supply in bands to book by basically treating them like free labor.
posted by lownote at 1:27 PM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


As with writing, the problem is that there are so many more people wanting/willing to do it than there are paying spots for it.

I liked griphus's comment: I understand (better now, even) the complexities of events like this but jesus christ it's hard to read that without thinking "well it sounds like you figured out how to pay the other people involved."

When I was performing a lot in the women's music scene (aka lesbian culture), most events were unpaid. A local once-a-year event might have a daystage of local volunteer performers doing half-hour sets, and a big name coming in from out of town to do an evening show which would be ticketed separately, and the performer paid, reimbursed for travel, and housed (almost always in someone's home rather than a hotel).

One reason the person doing sound or the person doing video would be paid—and so would the lesbian-run business that provided plants to decorate the stage—is that these jobs are specific skills that don't have the aura of performance. People dream of being writers; if there are ten slots open on the day stage, twenty women who fancy themselves poets (only one of whom is any good) will gladly sign up for one of them. People dream of being musical performers, likewise. There's a reason "lesbian with guitar" is a cliche.

Mixed in with the ones who would like to "make it big," and who do these events to build a following that will get them into the venues that do pay, are people who aren't trying to to be full-time writers or musicians, but are just glad to have a couple of chances a year to get up in front of an audience, and are happy to do that for free. I was the former in my twenties, and did get to the point where I was doing at least some gigs that paid a hundred or two hundred bucks. Now I'm more of the latter. I'm happy if some group I'm part of has a talent show and I get to do my thing once a year or so.

On the other hand, there might only be one or two people in town who do sound professionally (we're talking a smallish Midwestern city here). Only one of them might be female (preferred at your local lesbian event), and/or willing to do a known queer event. These people, like the plant person and the videographer (not at all common in my day—you could get a tape of your set if you handed a blank cassette with your name on it to the sound person when you arrived), usually do that work professionally. The plant person is maintaining the plants in business and corporate settings all over town, as well as providing greenery and live flowers for one-offs like weddings and other celebrations. The sound person is also hiring out to local bands, or working sound at a bar that has live music, and so on. They have an established profession. Other people are hiring them and this is how they make their living, so when you ask them to do a job for you, you're being kind of a jerk if you ask them to do it for free. They won't show up unless you pay them, and there aren't ten people just like them lined up to do the job for free if you can't afford your first choice.

Professionals like that may do an occasional free job, if they think the cause worthy enough. They may give discounts to certain groups, like lgbt groups if that's a community they're part of. But they can't get known for doing jobs for free, because they'd be swamped with requests and end up spending every Saturday doing for free exactly what they do for money. And the free event will probably be happening on an evening or weekend, exactly when the paying jobs are happening as well, so it carries a real cost for them.

"Pay the performers" and "pay the writers" are common refrains. But as someone who has been, and is, both, there are supply/demand issues that will always make it difficult for a writer or performer who is not already getting paid gigs to get paid gigs.

One extra complication is that shows like the storytelling we're talking about, and the women's coffeehouses I used to do quite often, is that there are multiple performers. The complication isn't just that there are so many people to pay, but that it's hard to know how much value each of them has.

At least in book publishing, even if a writer doesn't get an advance, their royalties on a book can be clearly mapped to exactly how many copies sell. How much does that writer's work end up being worth, in the long run?
In magazine writing, that's harder to tell. I knew I was getting somewhere when my name ended up on the cover of a lesbian magazine I wrote a piece for, as if somebody might be at Giovanni's Room or Women and Children First and go, "Oh, hey, something by not that girl. I should buy this."

Unknown writers aren't going to sell copies on the strength of their name. The magazine is going to be bought because readers value the magazine, rather than, in general, because they value a specific writer. For niche magazines (or now, websites—so, not the Huffington Post), margins can be extremely tight, and so paying writers whose value to readers is unknown falls deep on the list.

It seems similar in these multi-performer gigs. People show up to Quarterly Storytelling Event because they've enjoyed that event before; who the performers are may be less important to most audience members than the brand name. And even if performer names matter, how can you know which performers are bringing the audience? You can't, until a performer gets big enough that it's obvious, which usually means that they're performing solo or smaller-group gigs in other venues, and getting paid for those. Which is to say, until they get to the point that they're so valuable elsewhere that, like the sound engineer and the plant people, you can no longer get them without paying them.

The model where people can get paid if they sell enough tickets or bring enough audience members is a scam very similar to certain publishing scams. A popular one is poetry anthologies that present themselves as very prestigious (and they will have fancy names like The National Poetry Annual), but publish every poem submitted in tiny tiny type. These anthologies do no marketing and do not sell in bookstores. They make their money by selling copies to the poets themselves, their friends, and their families. I think having to break the news to a naive young poet that having published in one of these doesn't count as "prior publication" and should be left off their press materials is one of the hardest things I've had to do.

When you have a bunch of people who have invested a particular undertaking with a kind of glamour, and who are so hungry to be or imagine themselves part of it that they are willing to pay for the privilege, or constitute a pre-existing population of dupes such that people can make money off exploiting them, paying them will always be something that only the most conscientious producer or publisher will do, and it will often be a token amount rather than fair compensation for their time and effort. I bet there are no scams that target sound engineers!

(I'd be interested to find out if there were, though.)

Pro-tip: the best-paying gigs are the ones on college campuses that are subsidized by student organization budgets. My best-paying gig ever was only attended by about 15 people, but it was on a college campus during Pride Week and I got paid something like $400, on the college's dime. If you can become a person that is bookable by student orgs for one reason or another, you can make bank. I've had an acquaintance or two who've done this, either as comedians or as providers of educational content on, say, AIDS prevention or trans issues. The power of this model is that the people who hire you are being bankrolled by the deep pockets of the institution.
posted by not that girl at 1:27 PM on August 29, 2016 [27 favorites]


Is it a normal thing for comps to eat up 20% of the house per show?

If it is a small venue, there are ten people getting up on stage for 15 minutes each, the performers are sitting in the audience when they're not onstage (I don't know if this is common in storytelling venues now but it was common in the environment I was performing in), and each of them is comped a ticket for a companion, absolutely. In a hundred-seat venue, just the ten companions are 10%.

If the venue also comped a couple of local journalists in the hope of media coverage, that adds to it as well.

I suppose this is a matter of scale—a larger venue that fills can absorb the same number of comps and make a much smaller dent in the take at the door.
posted by not that girl at 1:31 PM on August 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


I belong to a Facebook group for freelancers in my city. A lot of people in the group complain about being approached to do a task, typically writing, for exposure. I don't get asked to do that sort of thing, which is weird... maybe it's because I don't have a website and just rely on word-of-mouth for projects?

Anyway, what is really needed is some sort of training to teach creatives who are not getting paid how to say "no." And also how to do better market research to identify prospects who can actually pay.

It's a bit different than in performing arts, but if people really minded not getting paid, wouldn't they just refuse to perform?
posted by My Dad at 2:00 PM on August 29, 2016


There's no fucking grey area. If the producers are making money, they should share it with the performers. The AMOUNT is of course open to negotiation. It needn't be huge amount, but zero ain't right. Pay *something*, oh sanctimonious producers, since it wasn't you on stage performing the stories that the audience paid to see...
posted by twsf at 2:13 PM on August 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm thinking about how this compares to the shows I exhibit my comics at. Most comic shows are pay-to-exhibit and pay-to-attend, and it really doesn't bug me at all. They drum up the crowd, and I'm paying to sit in front of that crowd hawking my wares. Right now I consider a con a success if I make enough to cover my expenses; I've spent a day gaining new fans, some of whom may go on to support my next stuff via Patreon and/or Kickstarter. And there's enough industry people there that yeah, who knows who might wander by my book and fall in love with it? I don't make plans on that but it's part of why I'm glad that ECCC is a local con for me.

But I'm not performing. I did the creative work already. Sitting behind a table selling stuff is its own kind of performance, admittedly, but it's a lot less work than spending a year drawing enough of a comic to put it in a book and sell it, and a lot less work than rehearsing a performance, then doing that performance again and again. Once people started paying to attend a night I was asked to be part of, I'd want to be paid too.

Recently I got e-mail from someone who puts on music/art/fashion happenings in town. The deal was that I'd bring stuff to hang, and hawk some minimum amount of tickets to my fan base, and merge that with the fan bases of the other artists showing that night, plus the musicians and designers, and hopefully synergize them. But when I asked for stats on how much art typically moves at these things? No numbers. And getting stuff printed, plus hawking the tickets, plus showing up and performing as The Artist, starts to sound like Actual Work, and the last thing I need when I'm busy printing a book.

There's a complex dance going on between how much work I have to put into making the show happen, what kind of financial and networking opportunities a show involves, and how likely I am to decide to attend it. Clearly these story-telling shows are getting to a point where these numbers may need to change, one way or another. I sit at a con and sell crystallized nuggets of past work; performers get up on stage and do their work right there in front of you. When there starts to be real money involved, they should be getting paid along with the rest of the people who make the thing happen, IMHO.
posted by egypturnash at 2:26 PM on August 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


> There's no fucking grey area. If the producers are making money, they should share it with the performers. The AMOUNT is of course open to negotiation. It needn't be huge amount, but zero ain't right. Pay *something*, oh sanctimonious producers, since it wasn't you on stage performing the stories that the audience paid to see...

Maybe try putting on a show yourself, oh sanctimonious commenter, and see exactly how you'll manage to pay everybody without going bankrupt. I'm sure a lot of people would love to learn your secret.
posted by languagehat at 2:45 PM on August 29, 2016 [12 favorites]


Well they did say "if the producers are making money" - that's not a super thick line but...
posted by atoxyl at 2:54 PM on August 29, 2016


Maybe try putting on a show yourself, oh sanctimonious commenter, and see exactly how you'll manage to pay everybody without going bankrupt. I'm sure a lot of people would love to learn your secret.

If the show cannot be successfully put on without paying performers, then maybe it ought not to continue.
posted by tonycpsu at 2:56 PM on August 29, 2016 [7 favorites]


If the show cannot be successfully put on without paying performers, then maybe it ought not to continue.

surely this does not apply to cases where the producer is not making a profit - the question is really exactly where you draw the line and how
posted by atoxyl at 2:58 PM on August 29, 2016


Harlan Ellison on the topic.

exactly how you'll manage to pay everybody without going bankrupt

For sure, but the ways to deal with this are known: perform more popular things that more people are interested in and will pay more to see, or reduce your overhead by performing in cheaper spaces with fewer people and staff. What can be done about this? A person could pull a Tesla and use popular events to finance more obscure events, but the economic realities hold that an event with a bunch of performers and a nice place to sit will cost more than the ticket price reflects. The Ian MacKaye strategy of only charging $5 for all-ages shows means the venue and staff will have to be chosen to fit that constraint.

Part of me sees this as a growing pain about the internet (and mass-media in general). Ticket prices simply havent kept pace with inflation, and people are kind of inured to live performance in the age of YouTube and whatnot. But the money has to come from somewhere, but I still think the calculations are being done backwards, and perhaps there's some marketing innovation left to do that would color storytelling as a luxury event without having to think up some reason for a benefit that would allow $40 ticket prices (or whatever). What if they didn't do drink tickets and the bar/house lowered their fee due to not having to give away drinks?

Alternatively, retreat from the economics of cities and do these things 40mi out of town where you can get an Elks Lodge or something for $20/night.
posted by rhizome at 3:03 PM on August 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


surely this does not apply to cases where the producer is not making a profit - the question is really exactly where you draw the line and how

The producer making a profit turns it into an obvious imperative to pay performers for me, but even in cases where they're "breaking even" there is an opportunity for exploitation when they're paying some entities (the venue, the sound/video people, etc.) and not others, or when their choice of who to pay is motivated by the fact that some people have been conditioned to accept payment in "exposure".
posted by tonycpsu at 3:05 PM on August 29, 2016


No worries, y'all. Storytelling is its own reward—at least for men.
posted by Kylio at 3:09 PM on August 29, 2016


If only there were some kind of organization that people could join that would UNITE them and help keep this kind of thing from continuing.

In medieval times they had those- they were called guilds. Of course a big function of huilds was to limit the number of people in a given career, so there's a good chance that a guild would say "No, you don't have the right to do your performance. And we have guys with clubs to ensure that."

Honestly, if you want to get paid what you think you're worth, you're probably going to need an organization that has the ability and will to exclude 90% of the wannabe performers. Which is great if you're part of that 10%. But worse if you're part of the rest.
posted by happyroach at 3:12 PM on August 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


The poets, actors and musicians I book get 100% of the door, which miracle I pull off by running everything with volunteers in a space donated by my church. Audiences are never massive but what there is, they keep. We sell coffee and have a fundraiser show for expenses. I do what marketing I can for free. But we run things barebones, so expenses stay low, and we only do 9-10 shows a year.

I understand the straits club and theater owners are in, which is why I'm not interested in being one. But I also firmly believe performers should be paid.
posted by emjaybee at 3:18 PM on August 29, 2016 [9 favorites]


their choice of who to pay is motivated by the fact that some people have been conditioned to accept payment in "exposure".

Well it's motivated by the fact that some people are more in a position to demand payment that others - there are a few reasons for this.
posted by atoxyl at 3:24 PM on August 29, 2016


The poets, actors and musicians I book get 100% of the door, which miracle I pull off by running everything with volunteers in a space donated by my church.

It is amazing that you do this. One of the patreons that I am happiest to support the most is a craft-related magazine that since its founding has been dedicated to paying the content contributors, even if it's just an honorarium. The patreon was launched so that they could afford to have a paid staff to make the magazine better.

I wonder though, at a 10,000ft level (and removing real-world factors like the relative negotiating power of performers), what is the moral difference between running an event with volunteer staff vs. running an event with volunteer performers?
posted by sparklemotion at 3:34 PM on August 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Sad to see that featured storytellers aren't even guaranteed their cab fare home, but I was less appalled then I thought I would be at the compensation offered by the Moth, and I was glad to see that some of the bigger names were willing to pass a hat at shows where they claim the margins are too thin to accommodate performers.

As a producer of events, I HIGHLY disagree with the sentiment I saw here that someone who isn't famous is replaceable. That's just not true in any scene with an established local baseline pay.

If a nightclub or bar or 4000 person outdoor festival doesn't want to pay opening acts before the headliner, they could try an iTunes Playlist, a prerecorded mix, or God forbid a jukebox. Maybe the crowd will stay, maybe they won't. Maybe they'll get unruly and the headliner will have to play a hostile room. If all the curated readers at a $25-60 storytelling demanded $25 for their effort and are denied, I would hope that the hosts and producers have a treasure trove of stories of their own and the talent to whip the crowd into a frenzy for an open mic instead.

The problem with paying ZERO dollars is, if the exposure is worth what you say it is, and you're getting the best of your city's free performers, they're not going to stay openers very long and you'll need to find new kids. So you're getting younger people, people who need more of that one-on-one training the moth prides itself in, people who are bad at working collaboratively and try to turn their opening act into THE SHOW.

This is all contingent on people establishing that baseline rate, otherwise there's always new college students.

Aside from this I curate one event per month. Used to do a lot more but it really is hard work. I treat my performers the way I demand to be treated as a performer. I negotiate a guarantee that's fair for them if they knock themselves out but that I can afford to forfeit if there's a blizzard and no one shows up, and usually an incentive for more money if the night does well. If i make more, they make more money. 11 profits and 1 loss in December over the last year. Any of these companies that have been around a decade like Moth and Mortified should have the insight on how they can pay their people and the drive to do so.
posted by elr at 3:36 PM on August 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


Improv is another area of performance where it's very rare for performers to be paid, except perhaps the house team (if the theater has one.) And once again, it's a case of supply, demand, and expectation -- there are so many improvisers vying for stage time that the theater owners could probably charge money to let people perform. In fact, in a way they do -- improvisors who haven't paid for classes rarely get to perform onstage. Also, ticket prices for improv tend to be rock bottom as far as live performance goes, which is another factor. (The foregoing represents my observations of the Austin improv scene, but I don't think it's terribly different elsewhere.)
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 3:43 PM on August 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's funny that venues are never approached to donate their facilities for exposure.
posted by rhizome at 3:52 PM on August 29, 2016 [12 favorites]


As someone who has produced a new play festival, we made it one of our goals to make sure everyone got paid something: actors and writers. It was only a small stipend however, and we would've loved to pay more. The producers did not get paid, however we held back some of the revenue as an advance of the next year's festival.

Our two biggest expenses are the venue and PR. You can't perform without a place to perform in, and without PR, no one shows up. Even if you leverage free social media, you need to get the word out and at the very least that means printing posters, if not newspaper and or radio ads.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 3:54 PM on August 29, 2016


As a producer of events, I HIGHLY disagree with the sentiment I saw here that someone who isn't famous is replaceable. That's just not true in any scene with an established local baseline pay.

Tell me more about this, please. Can I have an example of a "scene with an established local baseline pay."

I drew on my experience in women's music, where a great many people were working for free. I know that the women who produced concerts, both of local and national performers, didn't get paid. The money went to buy space, advertise in lesbian newsletters and magazines, and hire professionals or rent equipment for things like sound. But this was a whole community that, in the 80s and 90s, felt that it was embarked together on something really important, and there was a lot of energy to do lesbian stuff for lesbians, and to simply be with other lesbians. So that's the personal experience I have to draw on, as well as the personal experience of being a writer of the kind of things that have a very exclusive appeal, if you know what I mean.

So tell me more about how a community develops a norm that there is some minimum amount that performers should be paid. In so much of what I hear and see, there's a general sentiment that this should be true, but a lack of will to make it happen, or a kind of cynical realism that says "it's never gonna happen." You've said it does happen, and (I'm not being sarcastic at all, I am entirely sincere) I'd like to hear more about how it happens.
posted by not that girl at 4:37 PM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Honestly, if you want to get paid what you think you're worth, you're probably going to need an organization that has the ability and will to exclude 90% of the wannabe performers. Which is great if you're part of that 10%. But worse if you're part of the rest.

I don't see any way to reconcile this argument with the fact that unions exist for some classes of performers and other creative types right now without any of these negative consequences that you're invoking here. The modern day equivalent of "guys with clubs" is federal labor laws regarding collective bargaining, but all these laws do is ensure that unions have an opportunity to exist (and in many cases, state right-to-work laws undermine this), not that only union jobs can exist in these professions.
posted by tonycpsu at 5:06 PM on August 29, 2016


It's funny that venues are never approached to donate their facilities for exposure.

They are, though? I know venue owners that get asked to donate or discount their services all the time, often for "exposure." The difference is, venue owners say no.
posted by No-sword at 5:34 PM on August 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


what is really needed is some sort of training to teach creatives who are not getting paid how to say "no." And also how to do better market research to identify prospects who can actually pay.

Yep pretty much. I think regardless of the creative career you're in, if you are thinking to yourself "exposure is totally fucking worthless" then the next logical step in your thinking should be "then obviously I won't work for free."

Yet lots of creatives can't make this leap to JUST SAY NO and continue working for free while getting ever more bitter about it and expect things to ~magically~ change one day when they get "discovered". And they look around at the people who are getting paid and they're all: their work sucks anyways/it's all about who they know/who they fucked/why don't I get those gigs/if only we had a union like the film folks/civilization is dead because no one values my craft/ etc.

When really those people getting paid were just willing to say 'no' to that shit job you took.

If you spend all your time working for or chasing after clients who won't pay, how will you ever find the ones who will?

To use the venue example, if they book every night of their calendar with pro-bono charity events then they're not available for gigs that pay. They would certainly be getting 'exposure' though... to all the people who never have and never will pay for a space for their event.

All you have to do is say 'No, sorry my rate is $____' and then walk the fuck away if they won't talk money. It's magic.
posted by bradbane at 5:47 PM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


I take classes at a comedy school that does improv (as do I). It is a rare school that does pay performers--or at least the ones that perform on Friday and Saturday nights are paid. I don't know how much but I am assuming it's not a lot. It's a nonprofit (which may make the income less of an issue, I don't know) and the president is very forceful about how he thinks people should get paid and sounded pretty disgusted when recounting how a rival school wouldn't do that. Weekend shows usually run something like $8 or $15 individually and have 1-3 (usually 2) shows going a night, you can usually get a discount and/or freebie late night show if you say you want to attend 2.

Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are more "training" nights for the standup and improv people. They charge about $6 for those shows, people taking classes at the school get a free pass to attend and they warn the audience in advance these are the newbies, so adjust your expectations accordingly. I don't have a problem with those folks not getting paid, god knows people need the practice and I'm not sure how much of an outside audience they get on weeknights--I figure it's comedy school people and/or their friends more than randoms off the street coming in anyway. But yeah, performing is restricted to people who have taken classes. One show a week is for anyone who has at least gone partway through Improv 101, but after you've done 101 you can drop in and put your name in the hat any time for free if you like. House training teams require you to have taken up through 301 and you audition for those. Presumably after those points you can stop signing up for classes if you'd like. I'm not sure what the requirements for the standup performers are classwise, I have heard it's all free for them but if they can bring someone else to see them they can get moved up in performance time.

But really, what this whole article boils down to is: nobody needs art, art is expendable, artists are mostly doing it for free because they want to do it and can't get paid to anyway because nobody needs it like they do food and water, so...yeah, this is gonna happen. They can always find someone who will work for free if you won't, and which is more important to you: getting to perform or getting paid? The choice is yours. I'll probably never be worth getting paid as an artistic talent (being realistic) and I'm going to do that stuff on my own anyway, and will still need a day job anyway, so....

But that said, I dunno, do they need to print programs every time? (I've seen some theater companies just post bios and program info in the lobby, and my school posts those online.) Or offer prizes? What are they doing with all the fancy video shot by a videographer to justify that cost? So maybe that could slightly help the problem, I don't know.

"I know venue owners that get asked to donate or discount their services all the time, often for "exposure." The difference is, venue owners say no."

I'm reasonably assuming venue owners don't need exposure so much as they need money to pay the utility bills.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:01 PM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Pretty much any performance endeavor that involves people either a) doing what they love, b) hoping to make it big, or c) both will have the vast bulk of the participants not getting paid. Theater, dance, music, storytelling, triple A baseball, whatever--there's not a large enough audience to generate lucrative ticket sales or sponsorships, and there's plenty of people who are willing to do it either cheap or free because they like doing it or because they're looking to get noticed. Heck, the storytelling/acting thing is not even close to the worst example of this--check out motorsports.

Go to any amateur NASCAR sanctioned short track event, any amateur motorcycle roadracing or dirtbike event, or practically any motorsport event barely below the "professional" level in the US, and you'll see an entire field of men and women out there who are not only not getting paid to put on that show, but they're spending tens of thousands of dollars of their own money just to be there, as well as risking serious injury or worse to participate. Ticket sales barely cover the expenses of putting the event on (and many times don't), and sponsorship money for the top finishers if it's even there is minimal--like, you can maybe buy one tire with your winnings, but you've burned through at least a dozen during the weekend. So why do they do it? The fast kids are hoping to get noticed and make it to the show, and some of them even do. The not-so-fast are out there because they love doing it.

Do we expect them to band together and say "If we don't get a cut of the non-existent money, we're not racing anymore"? Probably not, because if they did that, then pretty quickly there'd be no place for them to race at all. Same with storytelling--if the performers need to get paid, then there's not going to be a stage for them to perform on. It's not a matter of whether it's right or wrong, it's just the way it works, at least until people start wanting to pay $500/ticket to amateur storytelling events.
posted by stagerig1 at 6:15 PM on August 29, 2016 [7 favorites]


The core issue here is that there's a glut of artists (which is a terrible thing to say) that exceeds the capacity of the society to support them. There are so many of them that they have little or no bargaining power, and the only thing they can fight for is indeed that mythical "exposure". In the absence of laws clamping down on the predatory manners of the people who exploit that situation, what can be done? Even state patronage can only go so far, and will subsidize artists who already have a "name" or some sort of professional recognition, as it is the case in some countries.
posted by elgilito at 6:25 PM on August 29, 2016


So tell me more about how a community develops a norm that there is some minimum amount that performers should be paid. In so much of what I hear and see, there's a general sentiment that this should be true, but a lack of will to make it happen, or a kind of cynical realism that says "it's never gonna happen." You've said it does happen, and (I'm not being sarcastic at all, I am entirely sincere) I'd like to hear more about how it happens.

The only way I've ever seen this happen is incrementally, and even then only in communities large and interested enough to support a substantial arts scene. The local company puts on plays with local (free) talent for a while, and they do well and get some good reviews. They find themselves a patron or a sponsor willing to underwrite getting a talented actor on an Actor's Equity contract (which does have definitions for minimum pay and other conditions), and then that show also does well and gets great reviews and pulls a bigger audience. Then that attracts more sponsor/patrons, then they add more Equity actors on subsequent productions, and pretty soon they're actually paying actors, directors, and playwrights. I have not seen or heard of it happening outside of Equity contracts, although there could be some independent theater out there that's making a go of it.
posted by stagerig1 at 6:27 PM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


In the absence of laws clamping down on the predatory manners of the people who exploit that situation, what can be done? Even state patronage can only go so far, and will subsidize artists who already have a "name" or some sort of professional recognition, as it is the case in some countries.

Well, a realistic universal basic income would let people who want to live for art and don't mind living frugally (but don't want to live in actual dumpster-diving poverty) do just that. That's one solution, and it removes the state from the process of picking winners. Start a pro-troops country band, start a radical anarchist noise collective advocating revolution, lie around smoking weed, whatever: you get the UBI anyway. Many have argued that all those beloved 80s-90s indie bands from the UK were able to hustle their way to success precisely because they could live off welfare instead of all holding down two day jobs stacking shelves.

(Obviously, "Just UBI it!" is only a shade more realistic, given capitalism, than "Just live on a unicorn farm and eat dewdrops!" But still.)
posted by No-sword at 6:32 PM on August 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


The producer making a profit turns it into an obvious imperative to pay performers for me, but even in cases where they're "breaking even" there is an opportunity for exploitation when they're paying some entities (the venue, the sound/video people, etc.) and not others, or when their choice of who to pay is motivated by the fact that some people have been conditioned to accept payment in "exposure".

Really? Because I'm very comfortable with someone who is producing an event making a small profit, even if the performers aren't paid. First of all, the producer usually takes the risk. They aren't going to come after the performers to cover the losses if there are any. Secondly, producing a show or event is a ton of work, much of it not particularly enjoyable, and there aren't a ton of people out there clamouring to produce small break-even shows. If someone works for months to produce a show and at the end of the day, they take home $300, I really wouldn't begrudge them not paying their handful of performers as long as everyone knows what they are getting into. People want to perform and then producer has given them the opportunity. What's the problem here?
posted by ssg at 7:51 PM on August 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


First of all, the producer usually takes the risk.

And reaps the reward, yeah? If the show is a smash hit, they get all the upside, not the workers.

as long as everyone knows what they are getting into

And this is the rub. Not only do people often not know what they're getting into, but even those who do can be exploited. The same logic you're using has been used to justify child labor, 80+ hour weeks without overtime, starvation wages, and any number of other things that we as a society decided we wouldn't accept.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:25 PM on August 29, 2016


Pretty much any performance endeavor that involves people either a) doing what they love, b) hoping to make it big, or c) both will have the vast bulk of the participants not getting paid. Theater, dance, music, storytelling, triple A baseball,

Don't limit it to performance. Anything that is perceived as fun by a large number of people will either involve average wages close to zero, large & unprofitable outlays of capital, high chance of total failure, hellacious amounts of work, or all all of the above.

Running a bed and breakfast, owning a used bookstore, starting a restaurant, writing poetry (or novels), hosting a podcast, making wine, whatever. Heck, would-be astronauts are getting separated from their time (and apparently possibly money) by Mars One.

I literally don't know what you do about this. A rule that people can't do something they want to do for free or on the slight chance of future success would be . . . odd. That some other people make money doing the "boring stuff" like opening a restaurant supply chain or freelance bookkeeping is not inherently unfair. Not to say exploitation doesn't happen. An income guarantee would be humane but doesn't make distribution of revenues more "fair" if some people involved need to get paid to motivate them and others do not.

In the case of performers it's even worse because you need collaborators and an audience, and a producer who delivers those is doing you a service. This story (and related links) covers the ongoing dispute where actors voted overwhelmingly against getting minimum wage guarantees in LA from small theaters.
posted by mark k at 9:01 PM on August 29, 2016


I will say, even with our setup, it is disheartening that we get more folks with a 10.00 admission than a 15.00. Something about that extra 5 bucks makes people hesitate. And of course a standard take is about 400-500, which divided among two bands with multiple people, is not much. We have some bigger nights, but we are still very much under the radar. We're hoping to improve on that though.

(I persuaded my church to let us do this at all because they want to attract new members, and a cool artsy event is a great way to alert several desirable demographics that you exist. I would suggest approaching a UU or other liberal-minded church in your area with a similar proposal if you want to put on something like this and need a venue.)

Musicians have another avenue, doing house concerts that charge a fee and pay them (a form of patronage if you like). I don't see any reason poets and storytellers and actors couldn't do them too. I wouldn't mind paying to see an original work while eating potluck and drinking beer.
posted by emjaybee at 9:11 PM on August 29, 2016


Aren't these story events like a karaoke bar or a softball league? People go to a karaoke bar because they want to sing in front of a crowd. People go to these story events because they want to tell stories in front of a crowd. People pay to join a softball league because they like to play softball.

Singing, storytelling, and softball all have a continuum of price points - at one end you *pay* to participate, and at the other end you get paid a "professional" rate. And in the middle, plenty of qualified but not quite top draw folk get to do it for free.

Where along that spectrum does the exploitation start?
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 9:18 PM on August 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


And reaps the reward, yeah? If the show is a smash hit, they get all the upside, not the workers.

We're talking about people putting on storytelling shows for, at most, a couple hundred people. The upside is very limited. Smash hit is not within the possible realm of outcomes. If somehow the demand was such that they could put the same show on night after night, they would certainly have to pay to keep the performers performing.
posted by ssg at 9:34 PM on August 29, 2016


Neither softball nor karaoke is a craft.

Singing and storytelling are typically held at venues that are profiting directly from attendance, so the exploitation starts at "pay to play." Maybe if liquor laws and zoning were loosened (in your chosen prefecture) it would be easier to have events that break even. I'm sure there are lots of small-warehouse owners with vacancy who would be happy to cut a decent rate rather than have their property lying fallow.

Karaoke also happens at profit-taking places, but usually secondary to the activity (bar/restaurant). AFAIK "pay to karaoke" means private room, which means it's a luxury.

Where softball is pay to play, to my knowledge the games will always be played on taxpayer-funded fields.
posted by rhizome at 9:41 PM on August 29, 2016


Musicians have another avenue... I don't see any reason poets and storytellers and actors couldn't do them too.

Many people don't feel as free to get drunk and sway to stories as they do to music. You have to pay attention with stories. They'll spend on comedy that offers an 80% chance of being entertained enough, while drunk (which touring stand-up comedians can deliver by talking about how women are different from men and doing jokes about bums etc). People want to have fun, not watch fun, so much. People give up their own fun when a performance has odds of being genuinely exciting (or reliable) and has been vetted by the appropriate vetting people.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:39 PM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


The last Moth performance I went to had 10 storytellers. Two of them were great. One was downright offensive. One I wanted to charge for shrink fees cause we were listening to what seemed to be an unedited version of her marriage problems. The rest were- meh.

But even though some of them kind of sucked- I saw how happy it made them to be heard. I think that is why people do this sort of thing. And if you aren't happy about being heard for free anymore- go do your own podcast/website/ one person show. Take on that risk and go to town. I say this as a writer who has written for thousands of hours and probably made about 20$ as a result.
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 12:32 AM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


The artists should receive an hourly wage, just like all the other people working at the gig. That sort of money shouldn't be too much of a burden to the show.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:22 AM on August 30, 2016


The lengths that people will go to to defend not paying performers is astonishing. And then, between talking about “exposure” (which is 99% useless) and giving drink tickets and gift bags makes it even worse. If you’re charging $20 for a ticket to an event at a venue that will hold 200 people, charge $21 and give the performer $200. This should not be difficult.


Being a writer/journalist/author, I have experienced the identical problems. People want to be informed/entertained, but the concept of paying is somehow beneath them. Publishers also talk about getting "exposure" and getting "your foot in", which is absolutely rubbish. And th "networking" angle is the funniest one of all: who is going to "discover" you? Someone who sees you are willing to do it for free? Doesn't that put you on a sucker list or something? It is about the bottom line, and what is worse, the people who are trying to scam the writers are very well-to-do, yet have a nasty habit of claiming perpetual poverty.

But a lot people have stars in their eyes and buy it. I was always a bottom-line thinker, and do not fall for it.

Content providers, whether they are writers or actors or even artists need to change the way they see their profession and those who want to do all these great things, but without paying for it. It is something I grapple with as an independent author, but no author or performer should be insulted that way in the first place. You have professions that overcharge for their services and no one bats an eye, but there are those who people have trouble demanding they work for nothing...and no one bats an eye, either.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:33 AM on August 30, 2016 [4 favorites]


I've been telling stories on stage off and on for twenty-five years now, mostly in my own context (music and stories in a connected narrative in the 50-90 minute range), and I have a longtime mentor/arts patron who's been a great influence and a late mentor who was a great don't-let-this-happen-to-you character, and some of the advice I've gotten along the lines of "never work for free" translates into "never work in public."

I know this well from my live work as an ambient musician where, if I'm lucky, we'll split the door and I'll cover my gas to the venue, but I don't make slow, foggy soundtrack music out of a misbegotten belief that it'll be a path to fame and a harem of eager beardos with a jones for someone who can play an iPad very, very slowly, so it's not even remotely a problem for me.

When I've told longer stories, I usually split the door, or get funded by state grants and other funding sources, as happened last fall in St. Louis, where the incredibly gracious Hearding Cats Collective flew me in from Maryland and gave me a generous stipend for my performance, but when it comes to these ensemble things, I really don't care if I get paid or not, because they function as much as networking/friendmaking occasions (a group show at the National Electronics Museum, for instance, got me the St. Louis gig, by virtue of a friend-to-friend chain of "hey, you guys should really check this guy out!"). I've worked in arts administration for a while now, and I've seen what goes on backstage and yeah, most of these events aren't profit monsters, and even when they do make a little money on a good show, it's usually just refilling the coffers from the ones that didn't pull a crowd.

For me, the Moth-type shows sort of arrived after I was already doing long-form work, and my natural rhythm is eighty-minute cycles made of 6-12 minute stories, so I've had a hard time breaking in, but earlier this year, I showed up on a lark to a second-stage show from Baltimore's super-cool Stoop Storytelling series, which I'd been watching jealously from the sidelines, put my name in the hat, and hoped that the scraps of an idea of a story I wanted to share would make sense if I was called...and suddenly they were calling on me.

It was a show with a three minute clock, but I somehow managed to go on for almost twelve minutes without them ringing the bell, and I told a story that I am happy with in retrospect, even if it was rushed and rough and needed a little less "umms" and "uhs" and HRT, and afterward, the audience went nuts, which made me feel very good. I don't know about exposure, but I was paid in knowing that what I said meant something to a lot of the people out there, and later, when my story reappeared on the Stoop podcast, hearing the framing introduction, which was so complimentary I just could hardly stand myself.

This piece got me some other work, in DC and elsewhere, and I'm pretty sure I'll get into one of the main stage shows in the upcoming season, and I don't expect to make money, but that's why I have a day job—so I can tell my kind of stories instead of telling highly marketable stories to more mixed audiences. Like writing ridiculously long Metafilter comments, I don't have a plan for immediate income, but I'm cultivating an audience that'll buy my damn book if I ever get my editing act together, or will show up at my long-form shows in which I can do a split or four-wall the theater, and that's where I'll make the money. I can recognize the difference between an exploitative gig and an earnest, but payless, one, skip the former without a doubt and accept the latter with enthusiasm and use these as steps along the way to making my day job less important.
posted by sonascope at 5:37 AM on August 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


I should add, though, that I've never had anyone actually voice the "exposure" line to me. Maybe that's more of a big city thing, or maybe I'm just a rube who doesn't need that when I'm happy to have an audience?
posted by sonascope at 5:39 AM on August 30, 2016


cntl +f "church" church gig strategy = found
cntl +f "college" student activities gig strategy = found
cntl +f "benefit" benefit show strategy = found

cntl +f "dumpster" dumpstering food strategy = found
cntl +f "food stamps" = found, more or less

shout to universal basic income

i think this covers 'punk economic strategies 101'

we could revisit the 'internet killed hardcore' argument here, but it's been covered by the guild discussion; once tour logistics was something any kid could figure out via mapquest, rather than something you had to cultivate by moving within a social circle, the number of bands increased 100-fold, most bands sucked, people stopped coming to shows.

I always felt like hip hop had a better angle; there's a built-in mechanism for calling out shit performers and weeding them out, limiting who is willing to play for free; and no shame in demanding pay

"I don't work for free and am barely giving a fuck away"
posted by eustatic at 6:29 AM on August 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


once tour logistics was something any kid could figure out via mapquest, rather than something you had to cultivate by moving within a social circle, the number of bands increased 100-fold, most bands sucked, people stopped coming to shows.

I went to enough pre-internet shows to assure you that there were plenty of sucky bands then also, and musicians not getting paid. It might be worse now, though.
posted by emjaybee at 7:12 AM on August 30, 2016 [6 favorites]


“exposure” (which is 99% useless)

This is demonstrably not the case. The effectiveness of exposure is essentially (# of times exposed) * (average size of audience) * (% of audience you appeal to) * (some number representing your follow-through in leveraging that exposure). So, yes, playing one gig for free at a county fair where you aren't a known quantity isn't going to translate into much more than a couple of albums or t-shirts sold and a few people on your mailing list. In general, no single gig - unless it is prime-time TV or a viral video - will generate anything more than a couple of "good job!" exhortations. You have to do it over and over and over and over again until you gain notoriety. This is why companies advertise, why politicians run ad campaigns and glad-hand, why promoters buy opening slots for their bands on major act tours. Familiarity and exposure are key to success in generating revenue and getting venues to pay you to show up and perform. Getting $50 to do your thing at a club will get you dinner, and that's it.

There are, of course, lots of people who exploit this fact to screw artists over, so caveat emptor. Not all exposure is equal, and many "opportunities" are bullshit. And people need to eat! But exposure is not useless - it is just ineffective in small doses.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:31 AM on August 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


You have professions that overcharge for their services and no one bats an eye,

Yeah, but that's probably because they have rare or hard or expensive skills that someone can't do without, so they're stuck paying that money to get the service. Performers are a dime a dozen, sigh.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:39 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm reasonably assuming venue owners don't need exposure so much as they need money to pay the utility bills.

If you rent a venue for a performance run (rather than a single night), you'll probably be asked to pay the utility bills on top of the lease amount. They do have to pay their mortgage bills, but in a lot of places, it seems like the driving force is "going rate" not "cover my cost".
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:59 AM on August 30, 2016


people stopped coming to shows.

I haven't noticed that, seems to me people do still want to see known quantities, i.e. ones encountered online that have a bit of buzz behind them (and are good). The energy of a live event is something people still want to experience, imo. Maybe they're just less willing to take a risk (of more than, yeah probably $10, that'd be my max) on unknown bands. I think there's more appetite for exploration of unfamiliar DJs - especially those introduced by a trusted promoter/night/venue. Because dancing to a less than great DJ is better all around than genuflecting (for some genres) in front of a boring or bad band. No matter what, there will be a beat you can move to, and maybe some new people to meet, which is easier to do on a dance floor than in front of a stage.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:28 AM on August 30, 2016


good point about bands and djs. and sure, pre internet, there were bands that were total shit, but what changed was the ratio of good:bad, so that the time invested became a slog; i remember that it just seemed impossible to even keep up with all the mediocrity.

i suppose that was why i stopped playing music myself around this time, to save you all the trouble ;)
posted by eustatic at 9:29 PM on August 30, 2016


I live in a very small country where theatre is very much under-valued, and where (it's my understanding that) actors generally get paid very little and often not at all. Last year, my mother, who's a jack-of-all-trades in various media professions, decided to try her hand at producing a play. She not only paid all her actors a decent wage for appearing in the play, but made sure they received a stipend for each week of rehearsal as well -- out of her own shallow pockets, before she had any idea what the final take might be. Being able to do that, and show that it could be done, was one of her main motivations for taking on the project. She got private and corporate sponsors onboard and a major venue to give her their auditorium for weeks for absolutely nothing, and in the end she made a good profit and everybody in front and back of the scenes got paid. I'm really proud of having a mother who can and wants to do things like that. But, she was only able to do it by drawing on the ~100 years of networking, reputation-building and countless forms of unpaid service she and my late father shored up between them over the course of their entire lives. And who knows? She might never get around to doing another play again.

On the other hand, we have a handful of small theatre companies that have scratched and clawed to keep their rent paid and their lights burning for decades. The directors don't always have the resources to do things like pay actors for their rehearsal time, or even their performances sometimes. But they're the ones doing the dreary and desperate work of keeping theatre alive here year after year, when others have moved on to something or someplace less draining. Their endless bureaucratic slog -- the loans, the deeds, the insurance, the security, the vendors, the fund-raising, the phone-answering, the letter-writing, the media-outreach, the wheedling and begging -- is what gets actors trained, gives playwrights a reliable outlet, maintains spaces where theatre can happen, and keeps a tiny public engaged, permanently, and they'll hopefully still be going after I'm dead. What they're doing has a LOT of ongoing, institutional value. I think the answer to the terrible problems everyone has outlined has to be to find ways to make efforts like that more profitable rather than to pit small-time producers and directors against performers. The ones who are making decent money have no excuse.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 11:30 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


I don't see any way to reconcile this argument with the fact that unions exist for some classes of performers and other creative types right now without any of these negative consequences that you're invoking here.

I'm not sure it's true that none of those negative consequences occur - but the extent of those consequences in reality may not be as severe as the comment was suggesting.
posted by atoxyl at 1:55 PM on August 31, 2016


I'm always surprised to see this conversation without mention of people's decreasing discretionary wages as basic cost-of-living expenses continue to rise, sometimes quite steeply (rent, groceries) and salaries stay stagnant.

In some sense it's fair to say that people are valuing live entertainment less, but in another sense it seems like it would be fairer to say that they continue to value housing and shelter more highly. Which seems fair.

This is a sucky situation for everybody and for 'art' as a thing, and I think it requires all of us working together for political solutions rather than haranguing individual producers, who may be donating tons of time and expertise, for taking in any money at all, or individual performers, for being willing to work for free.
posted by Salamandrous at 12:14 PM on September 3, 2016


There's no political solution for other people not valuing what you're doing for free. There's a personal solution, which is either doing something for the sole reason that you love it, or else focusing your energy in things that the are better remunerated.

It is ridiculous to liken working in the arts to "child labor" as if children are powerless in the same way as thespians. Thespians can participate in the economy looking for jobs that pay at least a minimum wage. What we don't want is to try, by some adulteration of the market, to inflate their wages because doing that makes things worse for almost everyone. Increasing pay, means more people would go into the arts, more people would quit their jobs to pursue theatre full time. But job supply is limited by public demand for plays. So the thespians who now compete with many more applicants for the same jobs have traded their job security for better pay. And who gets the jobs? The most qualified actors? Maybe. Or maybe friends of the directors? Or the best looking actors? Or people who have "favors" to trade? Or rich actors who can "pay to play"?

I agree that there are some fundamental problems with the arts being so badly paid that the rich have an upper hand in participating, and so (perhaps) our society's art prioritizes the voices of the rich. There needs to be government grants distributed according to merit to ensure that the most talented artists can pursue their craft. However, twisting the market to improve artist pay has too many negative consequences for too little benefit.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 5:19 PM on September 3, 2016


« Older Jellyfish are going to kill us all   |   Sad Face Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments